Damn, this is a funny record. Multi-reedwoman Anna Webber‘s mammoth new double album Idiom – streaming at Bandcamp – is her most ambitious yet. She’s no stranger to large-ensemble work, most memorably with her Webber/Morris Big Band album from a couple of years ago. The loosely connecting thread here is extended technique, something Webber has plenty of and uses liberally but not gratuitously. The jokes are relentless and irresistible. Webber gets extra props for having the nerve – and the optimism – to put out another big band record at a time when big band performances in New York have been criminalized. Hopefully for no longer than it takes for a Cuomo impeachment!
There’s also an opening disc, Webber joined by her long-running Simple Trio. The first number is a creepy, circling flute and piano theme and variations, with sudden dynamic and rhythmic shifts. It’s closer to Terry Riley than jazz. Drummer John Hollenbeck adds flickering color to the steady sway, pianist Matt Mitchell setting off a lake of ripples from the lows upward. Furtiveness becomes spritely, then the hypnotic spiral returns.
The second of these Idiom pieces has even more of an air of mystery in the beginning, its spaciously wispy minimalism growing more herky-jerky, up to a clever piano-sax conversation over Hollenbeck’s funky drive. Forgotten Best is a great track, beginning as a very allusive, rhythmically resistant take on hauntingly majestic Civil Rights Coltrane, then hitting a triumphant, quasi-anthemic drive. The trio follow with a coyly comedic, hypnotically circular, flute-driven march.
Webber subtly employs her pitch pedal for sax duotones and microtones in the third of the Idiom series over Hollenbeck’s straight-ahead funk and Mitchell’s surgical staccato, then clusters wildly over the pianist’s various vortices. The drummer’s persistent gremlin at the door signals a shivery shift.
The twelve-piece large ensemble play an epic, largely improvisational seven-track suite on the second disc. Emphatic swats over a murmuring background, with a wryly funny low/high exchange, pervade the opening movement. One assume that’s the bandleader’s distant squall that sets off a racewalking pace. Sounds like somebody’s using a EWI for those Marshall Allen-style blips and squiggles.
An airy, increasingly suspenseful interlude introduces movement two, Webber back on flute, fluttering in tandem with Yuma Uesaka’s clarinet over the tiptoeing Frankenstein of the rhythm section – Nick Dunston on bass and Satoshi Takeishi on drums. A swinging fugue follows, the rest of the horns – Nathaniel Morgan on alto sax, Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, David Byrd-Marrow on horn and Jacob Garchik on trombone joined by the string trio of violinist Erica Dicker, violist Joanna Mattrey and cellist Mariel Roberts. Webber’s mealy-mouthed meandering, picked off by the trombone, is another deviously amusing moment.
O’Farrill punctures the mist of the second interlude and then wafts optimistically, a goofy faux-takadimi duel between horn and trumpet finally disappearing into a chuffing shuffle; ersatz qawwali has seldom been so amusing. Everybody gets to make a Casper the Friendly Ghost episode out of the fourth movement. Movement five slowly coalesces out of looming mystery, O’Farrill playfully nudging everybody up, Webber’s acidic multiphonics over a slinky quasi-tropical syncopation and an ending that’s predictably ridiculous.
The group rise out of the ether a final time to impersonate a gamelan for awhile the string section leading the ramshackle parade this time. It’s as if Webber is daring us to go out and have half as much fun as she did making this album.